Bern Nix and the River of Power

Harvey doesn’t seem to have a need to discriminate between Conservatives or Liberals, the haves and the have nots, or people with different cultural backgrounds. Harvey wants to drop buckets of rain on everyone. Already a catastrophe, Harvey may be categorized as a natural disaster or by some an act of God. News agencies seek out ways to report on what’s happening resulting in the Governor speaking of all the folks in the area as Texans or Houstonians, no longer separated by color or creed. Reports come in how people come together to face adversity from a power level beyond the ability of any government to regulate. People came together like this  during 9/11, and I’m sure countless other times. I only wish that it didn’t take such extreme scenarios to finally reveal the humanity inside of all of us that transcends the driving forces of division sourced in racism, cultural ignorance, and classism.

The power behind Harvey is always mere inches away. During the summer when I’m not working I have a sacred music space of sorts on the bank of the river in Astoria Park. Sometimes my spot is totally under water and other times I get to put my chair down where there might be up to five feet of water. After the tug boats strut their way by, I have to watch out for rogue waves that have caught me more than once. The reason I’m playing down there is to get as close to the power of the river as possible. Just a few hundred feet away the water churns, constantly overturning with multiple whirlpools in areas where the river suddenly gets very deep. These dangerous areas are just waiting to pull someone down to their doom.

** Flashback! **

Sometime around 2003, I lost the ability to rationalize who I was with what I did to survive. I headed to Rincon Puerto Rico and found a deserted beach to soul search. I bought a cheap kind of surfboard, and I entered the ocean only waist high to be safe with no swimming skill and being all alone. In the blink of an eye I was about 40 feet out, and the shore looked different and much further away. I felt myself being pulled further out and started to worry about catching a cramp in my leg, or my knees giving out. I tried to stay focused, and slowly, determined, I made my way back to the shore. I made it back in maybe 15 minutes that felt like 15 years. Afterwards, I sat on the beach and listened to some music I made with Daniel Carter. I saw and accepted that my reality was that I was a musician and that I had to be alive in order to exist, regardless of hustle madness.

The river in Astoria is no ocean, but its power is real. Hurricane Harvey had tremendous power. We know there are storms beyond this world such as on Neptune where the winds can reach 1300 m.p.h. We are aware that the Sun has tornadoes of fire on its surface bigger than 5 Earth’s. When I make sound near the river, I’m trying to join with this power, to become a part of it. Somewhere in that power, a power that can be seen, are the forces of life, birth, and death.

This weekend I played the music of Bern Nix with Reggie Sylvester on Saturday night and went to see James Carter at the Blue Note on Sunday evening. The third and final tribute to Bern following his transition was a solemn event as people came together again to celebrate his life and try to, as a group, confront the reality that Bern and his music were not just called home, but that he was brought back home, maybe even taken home from another perspective. Where did he go? A decision was made beyond our comprehension that leaves us with the only option left to submit to its reality. How we do that is of course very personal, but grieving as a group certainly seems to not only help, but to be a very human experience.

Slowly trying to process Bern’s passing in, I recently had a clear vision of Bern’s unique position in jazz and guitar history. Bern was a straight ahead guitar player from Berklee when he started playing with Ornette. Bern was into Charlie Christian, Joe Pass, and Grant Green. He was the first guitar player coming from that side of the guitar tradition to enter the process of harmelodics to find himself on the other side. Bern was the first true master of harmelodic swing on the guitar. Bern’s music was, of course, related to his life experience, and titles such as “I tried to call,” “I know the problem,” and “The fire within” all have personal meanings. There was tremendous humanity in his music. I always believed we could play the Vanguard or the Blue Note, especially after we did play the Iridium, for just one set, though an excellent one.

As soon as I read that my friend bassist Hilliard Greene was playing the Blue Note with James Carter, I made plans to see him with my beautiful wife, Sue Nyoni. It’s always a trip to be in the audience as a musician. I know JC from SA and got to play with him one time, for about 10 minutes. My ribs were hurting from a fall on the ice, and I had to use a student trumpet without warming up, but I gave it everything I had, believe it. In the audience at the Blue Note it was impossible not to get drawn into the music, especially seated 3 feet next to the drums. I occasionally came out from trance to check the audience’s reaction. Having become jaded on jazz tourism, what I witnessed was very warming to the heart. I witnessed people completely consumed by the joy of swing and improvisation. James has a very human element in his music and what I saw was people that love, I mean LOVE, jazz having an experience they will never forget. I have never seen such unabashed love for jazz in my life. I heard that the Charlie Parker festival had similar results. More than that I will never forget seeing Sue with her eyes closed deep in the groove of the music.


Somewhere in the people coming together to help each other in Texas, the gathering of folks to celebrate the life of Bern Nix, and people experiencing live jazz as a group spiritual experience, is where the meaning of what it is to be human resides. One day these deeper aspects of our reality will be the gateway to the nature of our true power and future on Earth.


When I found Bern, hanging above his bed in plastic from the cleaners were his clothes and hat that he had picked out to play the Prime Time reunion at Lincoln Center.


Bern was ready then..


And he still is.



Peace. ML



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